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John Calipari and Memphis: Free Throws Are Free, But You Paid the Price

Vance FitzgeraldContributor IJuly 21, 2008

I think of free throws when I think of Memphis.

This season was not about any individual player missing free throws—let me make that clear.  Individually, even poor free throw shooting will not hold those individual kids back.

Pointing out that they are amazing athletes would be an understatement.  They are amazing basketball players and competitors.  They were even impressively humble in the loss.

My focus is on the free throw attitude of John Calipari—but it is sad for him too.

In what would have been a storybook year, solidifying him at the top of the list of innovative active coaches with his advanced DDM offense, he continuously downplayed the importance of free throws.

(The true test for the DDM will come next year, when it is the DDM offense without the GNR crew putting the M into motion.)

The sad thing is that this team will forever be remembered for missing free throws—and in some ways, they will not be remembered at all because they missed free throws.

I blame Calipari for that.

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"You look at the numbers and say, 'They can't shoot free throws,'" Calipari said.  "That's what they zero in on.  It's almost hysterical."

"They say, 'They are so bad shooting free throws, they can't win games.'  We've been the same the last three years.  What is our record the last three years?"

"Part of the reason my teams haven't shot free throws well is the style we play," Calipari said.  "We expend so much energy on defense, being so aggressive and running so fast, that it's hard to go to the foul line, shut it down, stop, and make free throws."

"Our percentage may not be great, but we're still making more than they make," Calipari said.

Well?  Aside from that being a near-mentally-handicapped response, let's take a look just for giggles.

Looking across the top eight seeds in the NCAA tourney, Memphis is sixth in free throws made (483), never mind the poor percentage.

Also, Calipari says his team "makes free throws in the final four minutes when we need them."

Do they?  Well, I suppose that since they haven't 'needed' them—we don't have a lot of data points....

But even when they haven't 'needed' them through the year, Memphis shot about 60 percent from the line in the last five minutes of games.  Memphis missed four out of five during clutch time down the stretch in the championship game when it mattered most.

"I'm truly not worried about it," Calipari said.  "My concern in this tournament is toughness and rebounding.  That will have more to do with us than anything to do with free-throw shooting."

"We don't have anybody that has bad free-throw shooting mechanics."

Season free-throw percentages by NCAA champions

Top Five Free Throw Percentages of NCAA Tournament Winners

1. Marquette, 1977, 77.8

2. Indiana, 1987, 76.7

3. Kentucky, 1978, 75.9

4. Duke, 1992, 74.8

5. Indiana, 1981, and Florida, 2006, 74.4

Bottom Five Free Throw Percentages of NCAA Tournament Winners

1. Oklahoma State, 1945, 56.4

2. CCNY, 1950, 57.7

3. San Francisco, 1956, 60.4

4. Oklahoma State, 1946, 60.9

5. Connecticut, 2004, 62.3

Comparing this year's No. 1 seeds at the free throw line

1. North Carolina, 76.1 percent (617-of-811)

2. UCLA, 73.1 (530-of-725)

3. Kansas, 70.2 (530-of-755)

4. Memphis, 59.6 (483-of-811)

"Everybody, all they want to talk about is our free-throw shooting," Calipari said in a conference call prior to the NCAA Tournament.

John Chaney, one-time enemy and now friend of Calipari, mentioned Memphis's poor free-throw shooting to Calipari late in the season: "He said, 'You tell your guys I'll punch them in the mouth if they don't start making free throws,'" Calipari said.  "He's hilarious."

Calipari said nobody is talking about the 11 shots his Tigers blocked or their five turnovers against a Mississippi State defense that ranked second in the country in field goal percentage defense.

The Tigers and UCLA are the only teams to reach the regional semifinals in each of the last three years.  "But everybody, all they want to talk about is our free-throw shooting," Calipari said.

"It's almost to the point of, 'Do you really even know what my team does well or doesn't do well?'  Or is it because you don't know.  You just say, 'It's free-throw shooting. That's all I'm going to talk about,'" Calipari said during a conference call prior to the tournament.

"I don't know why.  I come back to the conclusion that maybe they haven't seen our team play nor do they really know, and the easy thing to talk about off the stat sheet is our free throws.  Maybe I'm wrong though."

Memphis shot 62 percent as a team last season and 68.2 percent for 2005-2006.  The number dipped to around 59 percent this season—ranking them near rock bottom among all Division I teams.

John Calipari mentioned in his post-game press conference that this was about "God's Will."

God didn't "will" him to take a free-throws-don't-matter attitude and to embed it into the Memphis system.

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